Monday was the first day of spring. I know that the weather at many NESCAC schools begs to differ, but I promise you that it’s true. Spring is a melancholy time for sports fans. On the one hand it’s baseball season. As you might know from reading literally any article ever written about baseball, spring and baseball go hand in hand. Every play in baseball begins the same way; with a pitch. Every is redeemed, much like the deadened flowers are redeemed in the spring. And here at NbN our NESCAC baseball coverage has kicked off in a big way with Devin’s preview.
But in this early spring I’m thinking about the end of something; basketball season. This year of NESCAC basketball was in many ways unprecedented for the league. Not in my memory has there been such talent across the board. While there were obviously better and worse teams, every squad this season had at least a couple moments where they blended together and sang in that way that only basketball can create. At one point there were five NESCAC teams ranked in the national top 25, and those five teams all received bids to the NCAA tournament.
This was a very literary season. We had a tragic hero find redemption in Tuft’s Tom Palleschi, who went down with a brutal knee injury during his
senior season before returning to lead Tufts to the Sweet Sixteen. We had a classic trilogy a la Lord of the Rings in Middlebury and Williams Rounds One, Two and Three. The final battle was one for the ages, a gritty war that featured unsung heroes (Bobby Casey ‘19,) star turns (Kyle Scadlock ‘19 looks like a POY favorite after his NCAA run) and several atrocious blown calls a lot of high quality basketball. Before fading down the stretch, Hamilton put the league on notice that they’re ready to make a run. They lose none of their main rotation, and Kena Gilmour ‘20 and Peter Hoffmann ‘19 are as deadly a one-two punch as there is in the league. Next year could be the year that they rise to the upper tier.
I could write one of these paragraphs about every team. That is the nature of NESCAC basketball this season and going forward; every team has SOMETHING that makes them worth watching. There’s a reason that Rory, Colby, me, Henry and all the other writers want to take time out of our diverse liberal arts college experiences to write about sports. Quite simply, it’s all interesting. But I will keep this briefer than that. Here are a few thoughts, feelings, way too early predictions and just general things I’m excited for from this season, and looking into next.
The Williams-Middlebury Rivalry is Real, Folks:
Both Williams and Middlebury will suffer huge losses come graduation. For Middlebury, Matt St. Amour, Jake Brown, Bryan Jones and Liam Naughton were the leaders of the team both on and off the court, and formed a back court that was unmatched in the country. Daniel Aronowitz and Cole Teal filled similar roles for Williams. Neither team will ever be able to fully replace theplayers they will say goodbye to come graduation.
But there is hope in Williamstown and Middlebury. Both teams balanced their experienced senior guard with dynamic young talent, particularly at forward. Matthew Karpowicz ‘20 for Williams is a future star at center, and Scadlock is maybe the league’s best talent at the forward spot. But Middlebury is loaded too. Eric McCord ‘19 and Nick Tarantino ‘18 became a dangerous duo this year, and Matt Folger ‘20 has First Team potential even as a sophomore. And better yet, all of these players will remember the games this year. Middlebury embarrassed Williams in the NESCAC final, and then Williams got their revenge in Pepin in the NCAA’s. Those wounds wont heal quickly, and we should be in for battles between the Ephs and Panthers for years to come.
The First Team Center Spot is Wide Open:
If you look throughout the league, the majority of the losses outside of Williams and Middlebury are big men. Tufts loses Palleschi, Bates loses both Delpeche’s, and Trinity loses Ed Ogundeko. This means that the door is ajar for new names to step forward as the beasts of the league. Early contenders would be Scadlock, Hoffmann and Joseph Kuo ‘18 of Wesleyan, but there plenty of darkhorses who could step up. McCord should get a lot of looks as part of Middlebury’s possibly less guard-oriented offense, and Williams has several young bigs who may make leaps. It will be fun to monitor who is stepping into those very big pairs of shoes.
Amherst Had Better Reload:
The Purple and White are lucky in that they keep the dynamic back court of Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18. But in almost every other area they are significantly weakened. They lose their most consistent bench threat in Eric Conklin, as well as David George (center and defensive stalwart) and both their point guards. And unlike Middlebury and Williams, they did not have a lot of deeper bench players who showed the potential to fill their shoes. Amherst struggled all season with a lack of depth, and graduation will decimate that already thin bench. Amherst traditionally recruits well and has benefitted from transfers in the past. If they don’t do that quite as well this offseason, they run the risk of falling even further behind surging teams like Hamilton and Williams.
Before we get to the Williams Final Four preview, a couple thoughts on Middlebury’s terrific season, and the legendary careers of Jake Brown ‘17, Matt St. Amour ‘17, Bryan Jones ‘17 and NbN’s own Liam Naughton ’17. One of the hardest things about writing this blog is simply remembering that the players are students. The players that we laud, criticize and analyze every week have classes and friends and social stresses and just general college things going on in addition to the sports that we value so highly. I personally can’t imagine adding an intense sports schedule to my busy academic schedule (blogging, playing video games and eating onion rings,) and we have the responsibility to remind ourselves of that while writing.
But that is also one of the best things about writing this blog. NESCAC sports are a very tight knit community (as are NESCAC colleges in general) and it’s a thrill to write about people who are also your classmates and friends. This experience has been especially real for me in the last four years. I feel very blessed to have entered Middlebury at the same time as Matt, Jake, Bryan, and Liam even more blessed now to write about them, and simply to know them.
I want to single out Liam for a second. Like Bryan, he had the misfortune of entering in an incredibly strong guard class, and didn’t get a ton of minutes over the course of his first three seasons. But he never once let it get him down. He continued to work hard in practice, and was an incredible teammate for his whole career (his bench celebrations were a source of great joy for fans in the seats.) And this season he was able to provide valuable minutes off the bench when Middlebury’s guard rotation shortened up. Every team needs stars to win, but teammates like Liam are just as, if not more important.
The accolades for St. Amour and Brown have rolled in, and are deserved tenfold. Indeed, I can’t even open up my Facebook feed without seeing an article about a new award that Matt has won. But their success goes beyond awards. For four years they, along with Bryan (who had the bad luck of being in the best guard class in the country; he starts on every other NESCAC team) and Liam have represented Middlebury with flair, joy, and class. It’s been my pleasure to watch them and cover them, and it is my continued pleasure to know them.
*wipes a single tear from my eye*
Alright, on to the Ephs…Williams (23-8, 7-6, lost in NESCAC Final)
Turns out the Ephs’ blowout win over Middlebury in the regular season was not as much of a fluke as we thought. After losing to the Panthers in the NESCAC final, the Ephs took the rubber match last weekend in a game that showed just how much they have grown as a team throughout the year. Williams has always been a good shooting team, but early in the season if they weren’t hot from three, their defense wasn’t good enough to get them a win over a quality opponent. But that Williams team is long gone. Williams shot very well against Middlebury (49%, 40% from three,) but it was their defense that got them the ticket to Salem. The Ephs held Brown and St. Amour to 10-26 shooting (1-12 from three,) and held the Panthers to as a team to their lowest home scoring output of the season. Against Middlebury, Williams showed that they have everything firing on all cylinders, and are a real threat to win the National Championship.
Final Four Opponent: Augustana College Vikings (23-8, 11-5, lost in conference final)
The Vikings are similar to Williams in that they have peaked in the NCAA tournament. Neither team won their conference final, but they both have put everything together to make a Final Four run. Augustana is led by their backcourt, with guards James Johnston ‘17, Chrishawn Orange ‘19 and Dylan Sortillo ‘18 leading the team in scoring. They seem to play at a very slow pace, only averaging 77 points on only 12.3 assists per game. The Vikings shoot a very high percentage from the field (48.5%) but don’t take many shots, and therefore have low rebounding numbers. Their team leader in rebounding is Johnston at 5.4, and the next highest number is 3.6. This is good news for Williams, as rebounding is their biggest weakness (the Panthers had 20 offensive rebounds last weekend, keeping them in the game.) Williams also defends the perimeter very well, so facing another team that relies heavily on their guards should be music to their ears.
Johnston seems to be the player to watch for Augustana. At 6’5” and 190 pounds, he has terrific size at the guard position. He is their leading rebounder and second leading scorer (5.4 and 12.7 respectively,) and certainly is the best match-up on paper for Daniel Aronowitz ‘17, Williams go-to scorer. With his size and rebounding ability, he will also play a critical role in stopping Kyle Scadlock ‘19, Williams’ best big man. Johnston will be the key to Augustana’s gameplan.
X Factor: Forward Kyle Scadlock ‘19
Speaking of Scadlock, he is the most important player for the Ephs tonight. Augustana, as every team must do against Williams, will try to run them off the three point line, and their slower pace could throw the Ephs off their rhythm. Additionally, they are a very deep team on the perimeter, giving them a lot of defenders to throw at Aronowitz, Cole Teal ‘17 and Bobby Casey ‘19. They do not have many defenders to throw at Scadlock. The Vikings are pretty big (they have four players over 6’7”) but not many of them play big minutes. And very few teams in the country have the versatility to keep up with Scadlock’s combination of size, quickness and skills. Scadlock’s assertiveness on offense has been a key to Williams’ run. He is averaging 17 points per game in their last seven, and his threatening inside presence opens up driving lanes and three point attempts for the guards. It is when he disappears and doesn’t look for his shot that Williams struggles. Scadlock has a great matchup tonight; if he shows up for it, Augustana is in trouble.
Other Teams in the Final Four:
#1 Whitman College Blues (31-0, 16-0, Won Conference Championship): vs Babson, 5:00 PM
As you can probably tell from their record, the Blues are the favorite to come out of this weekend as national champions. They are one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, averaging 91.8 points per game on 48% shooting. They seems to just be loaded up and down the roster with great scorers, rather than doing it with ball movement. They only average 12.5 assists per game, a shockingly low number for such a dynamic offense. They are led in scoring by National POY Candidate Tim Howell ‘18, who averages 20.4 points per game. Howell is an electric one on one scorer, and his skill off the dribble opens things up for his teammates. And they take advantage of those opportunities. Four other Whitman players score in double figures, including Jack Stewart ‘19, who shoots 42.3% from three. If you had to point to a weakness for the Blues it would be on the boards and at the foul line. Their rebound margin is only +1, a low number for such a dominant team, and they only shoot 64% from the line. But for 31 games in a row, neither of those things have mattered.
#3 Babson College Beavers (29-2, 14-1, lost to MIT in Conference Final): vs Whitman at 5:00 PM
Babson spent much of the season as the number one team in the country before dropping due to their conference final loss. But like Stella, they’ve gotten their groove back in the NCAA tournament. They scored 102 points in their Elite Eight win over Keene State, shooting 61% from the field. Stopping Babson begins and nearly ends with stopping senior guard Joey Flannery ‘17. At 6’5” and 215 pounds, Flannery has the size to score inside, but is also a deadly outside shooter and ball handler. He averages 23.4 points per game and has proven himself to rise to the occasion in big games. He had 38 in their Sweet Sixteen win over Tufts. And as if that wasn’t enough, Flannery also averages 7.1 rebounds per game. But Babson isn’t a one man show. Junior guard Nick Comenale ‘18 averages 16 points per game on 42% shooting from three, and big man Isaiah Nelson ‘17 provides a valuable post scoring threat. Babson is one of the most well-rounded teams in the country. The Babson and Whitman game at 5:00 tonight should be a classic, I recommend checking it out before tuning in to Williams to support the NESCAC family.
Going into last Sunday’s Williams-Bates game, Middlebury had a chance to play Bates, Williams or possibly Hamilton depending on the outcome. Bates drew the short straw, dropping the game 65-62 and now has to play maybe the hottest team in the country. And what’s worse, the Panthers will be at home with all the students back. In order to have a chance in this game, Bates will need to slow Middlebury down, get terrific performances from both Delpeches and their perimeter players, and also catch Middlebury on an off-shooting night (something they haven’t truly had since they lost to Williams.) It’s a tall order, but stranger things have happened.
Middlebury X-Factor: Bryan Jones ‘18
Jones has been one of the biggest surprises of league play, averaging nearly 10 points per game. His 53% shooting from three leads the league during NESCAC play. He has given the Panthers backcourt, already extremely lethal, another weapon. His deadeye shooting has made it impossible for teams to load up on Matt St. Amour ‘17 on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for him and also Jack Daly ‘18 and Jake Brown ‘17. It is due in large part to Jones being a threat that all the Middlebury guards’ stats have jumped up in league play.
However, Jones struggled on Tuesday against Plattsburgh State. Starting in place of Jake Brown, Jones shot 2-11 from the field and 0-5 from three. It was a surprising return to the inconsistency that has dogged Jones throughout his career, and inconvenient timing for its reappearance at that. If Brown misses more time, Middlebury can’t afford to give stronger defensive teams than Plattsburgh the ability to trap St. Amour on the perimeter, taking away his three point shots and much-improved mid-range game. While Jack Daly ‘18 is more than capable of handling point guard responsibilities in Brown’s absence (by “more than capable,” I mean “flirts with a triple-double”) he is not quite a three point threat. Jones doesn’t have to be white hot, but he needs to give Bates a reason to guard him or else the Panthers could be in for a long night.
Bates X-Factor: Jeff Spellman ‘20
Spellman, a transfer who arrived shortly before league play began, is a similar player to Jones but has recently been trending in a different direction. He sits third in the league overall in three point percentage at 41.7%, but has only shot 30.8% in league play. Against Williams he shot just 4-11 from the field and 1-7 from three. He did add 7 assists, but without his jumpshot Bates has very little offense outside of post-ups from the Delpeches. Pounding the ball into the post is an effective way to slow down the game, which is certainly the impulse when game-planning against Middlebury. But if Bates doesn’t have any outside shooting threats around their Twin Peaks (reboot 2017 let’s goooooo), the Panthers will do just what they did to Ed Ogundeko – swarm them whenever they get the ball, creating turnovers and forced, empty possessions. Spellman will be the key in taking away this part of Middlebury’s defensive gameplan.
How Bates Can Win:
They need to find someway to keep the score low. Middlebury is averaging 99 points per game in league play at home, and put up 97 against Trinity even without Brown. The natural way to do this would be to pound the ball on offense, taking time off the shot clock and preventing Middlebury’s offense from getting the ball. They have the ability to do this thanks to the Delpeches. Having two big men who are threats to score on the block prevents Middlebury from doubling big-to-big, and should create open threes or one-on-one post-ups. Bates will have to be raining fire from outside to make this strategy work, or else Middlebury’s offense is certainly fast enough to make up for lost time.
On defense, Bates will have to take away the three point shot. By jumping Matt St. Amour on the perimeter, they will take away his three-pointer and funnel him towards the Delpeches, who are both dangerous shot blockers. With Jack Daly, they will most likely leave him alone from three. However, it will be imperative to guard him one-on-one. St Amour will of course require double teams, but leaving a man open when Daly has the ball is asking for a bucket. He’s too good a passer, and Middlebury’s big men are getting too good at finishing at the rim to be left alone. Daly beating men off the dribble also creates open three-point shots. If Bates can take away those threes and funnel drives towards the Delpeches (particularly Malcolm), that leaves Middlebury pull-up, midrange jump-shots. These are inefficient shots, and will allow the Delpeches to own the boards. Bates is certainly an underdog here, but there’s a thin path to victory for them.
How Middlebury Can Win
I’m having trouble finding an answer for this other than “continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing.” Middlebury’s offense has reached a level lately that few NESCAC teams have ever achieved, but their defense on the interior has finally caught up. Middlebury is always going to give up points because of their fast paced offense (quick shots=long rebounds, fast breaks for the other team) but they have quietly gotten very good in the half court. The guards have of course always been excellent, but the big men have improved leaps and bounds, especially Eric McCord ‘19. McCord has become very quick on rotations and hedging the pick and roll, and provides a nice fundamental counterpart to Nick Tarantino’s athleticism. Interior defense will be the key to Middlebury’s strategy in this game, as the Delpeches are the key to Bates’ offense. I expect Middlebury to double heavily on either Delpeche from the perimeter on defense, and dare Bates’ guards to make threes. On offense, all the Panthers need to do is more of the same. Run, hit shots and move the ball around the perimeter until a lane opens up.
Although Bryan Jones and Jeff Spellman are undoubtedly the lead guards off the bench for their respective teams, the other members of the bench mobs deserve credit. Crowd favorite (and NbN writer, no big deal) Liam Naughton has clawed his way into the rotation as a steadying senior presence on the court, as well as a three point threat. He will be important in the tournament, as the other two guards off the bench are freshmen Joey Leighton and Perry Delorenzo, neither of whom are quite ready for tournament time. On Bates’ side, the most obvious next threat is Jerome Darling ’17, who has demonstrated his explosiveness scoring the rock a handful of times this season. His biggest performance of the year came in the upset of Tufts, in which Darling 4-9 three-pointers en route to 21 points. Bates could definitely use another superhero performance from Darling this weekend. Elsewhere, the Bobcats will look to Quinlan Leary ‘17 ( a summer camp teammate of yours truly), who has recently moved into the starting lineup to replace Nick Gilpin ‘20, giving Bates more experience and strength on the perimeter. In addition to the need for threes from Spellman, Bates will need Leary, Gilpin, or other guards like Shawn Strickland ‘18 or Justin Zukowski ‘18 to give them surprise firepower off the bench. Basically, everything needs to go right for Bates to have a chance, while Middlebury just needs to keep playing their game.
As Rory pointed out in the Friday preview, the third weekend is often a pivotal one for playoff chances. An 0-2 weekend this late in the season can be damning for post-season hopes, and that is only exacerbated by how strong the league is this year. Teams like Williams, Colby and yes, even Amherst need strong weekends to keep their playoff hopes alive, or reassert their place at the top of the league.
GAME OF THE WEEK – SUNDAY: Middlebury (13-2, 3-1) at Williams (12-4, 1-3): Sunday, 1/22, Williamstown, MA, 2:00 PM
Will I choose Middlebury as the Game of the Week in every preview? Probably. But this game deserves must-watch status. Not only is it a rivalry game pitting two of the most successful teams of the last decade against each other, it features two of the best scorers in the league in Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Daniel Aronowitz ‘17. And it should end before the Patriots game starts, so no worries there.
Middlebury and Williams enter the game on very different footing in the league. Middlebury is 3-1, and was very close to pulling out a win at Tufts. Williams, on the other hand, comes in at 1-3 and has looked like one of the bottom teams in the league. For much of the post-Michael Mayer era, Williams has been a highly dangerous and successful 3-and-D team, relying on outside shooting and strong perimeter defense to remain a contender in the NESCAC. But the Ephs haven’t been able to put together those two components of their machine yet this year. Despite taking the most three point shots in the league by a considerable margin, they have the third-lowest percentage. The defense is still strong from a numbers standpoint, but they have been exploitable by patient offenses, allowing the third-highest shooting percentage to their opponents in the league. Williams might not have the personnel to continue playing their patented style, but they could prove that idea very wrong with a win over the Panthers.
We’ve been writing a great deal lately about how the forward rotation of Matt Folger ‘20, Nick Tarantino ‘18 and Eric McCord ‘19 has given the Panthers an interior presence that many felt they’d be lacking this year. But in this game, I see the guards off the bench as being a crucial factor in Middlebury’s game plan. Williams will undoubtedly attempt to use the three point shot as a way to counteract Middlebury’s quick-strike offense. And if they’re hitting those shots, the Panthers may need some firepower from the outside to match them. That’s where the guards come in. The primary outside threat off the bench for Middlebury is Bryan Jones ‘17, who played some nice minutes early in the season but has shot just 5-18 in conference play. Recently, freshman guard Joey Leighton ‘20 has shot very well, entering the rotation just before league play and hitting 44% of his three pointers. Senior Liam Naughton and freshman Perry Delorenzo are also options, but haven’t played much in tight spots. Middlebury may need Jones and Leighton in particular to be scoring threats to open the floor for the three starting guards and the post players.
Williams’ big man rotation is a key for them as well. It is very telling that in Williams’ only NESCAC win thus far, a 72-66 road win over Colby, they got 33 points from their four forwards. In the other games, Williams has received a shocking lack of production from the frontcourt, on both sides of the ball. Williams is the second worst rebounding team in the league, and neither James Heskett ‘19 nor Matt Karpowicz ‘20 nor Marcos Soto ‘19 has been nearly consistent enough offensively to worry opposing teams. If Williams is to match Middlebury’s newfound interior presence, they will need good production from at least two of those bench players, as well as starters Kyle Scadlock ‘19 and Michael Kempton ‘19.
This is a critical game for Williams, who is drifting dangerously close to falling out of contention for a top four seed. They have traditionally enjoyed a huge home court advantage, and have beaten Middlebury in some classics in Williamstown over the last few seasons, particularly in tournament play. But they need more than history on their side on Sunday. They need their role players like Cole Teal ‘17 and Heskett to hit some threes, and they need Dan Aronowitz ‘17 and Scadlock to play like stars. Aronowitz in particular should be key, as he will probably be matching St. Amour for much of the game. He has to at least play him to a draw if the Ephs have a shot.
Middlebury wins this one on paper. They have far more offensive weapons on the perimeter, and should be able to crash the boards against Williams’ frontcourt. However, Williams’ style of play is by nature unpredictable. If they are hitting threes, they can hang with anyone in the country, and it will be Middlebury’s job to run them off the line and into the paint, where they are far less proficient at finishing over size.
Writer’s Pick: Middlebury
Connecticut College (10-5, 1-3) at Tufts (13-2, 4-0): Medford, MA, 3:00 PM
Basking in the glow of their new standing at the top of the Power Rankings, Tufts has taken the league by storm, winning their first four NESCAC games. They still haven’t quite gotten POY-level production from Vincent Pace ‘18, but KJ Garrett averaged 15 PPG over the two games last weekend, giving them a valuable offensive weapon off the bench. The Jumbos still have problems in the post, as Tom Palleschi ‘17 has struggled offensively for much of the season. That said, Tufts has plenty of weapons ready to pick up the slack.
Connecticut College has a lot of momentum entering this weekend. They shocked Amherst last Sunday, owning the paint en route to an 83-76 OT win. The Camels were able to lock down Jayde Dawson ‘18 as well as any team has this year, holding him to 9 points on 4-10 shooting. That suggests that they should be well-equipped to handle Pace, who showed signs against Middlebury that he’s rounding back into form. They also got 40 points and 18 rebounds collectively from senior forwards Zuri Pavlin ‘17 and Daniel Janel ‘17. Tufts showed against Middlebury that strong post players can give them problems, as Eric McCord emerged against them with 22 points. Therefore, Connecticut College has the tools to pull off another upset, but I don’t see it happening.
I’m setting the over/under for total points in this game at 105, as arguably the two best defenses (and least consistent offenses) in the league square off in what may come to be known as “The Battle of the Bricks.” Wesleyan looked to be nearly dead after starting off 0-2, but roared back with two straight wins over Amherst and Trinity. Wesleyan’s elite defense was on full display in both games, holding the two teams to an average of 60 PPG. They finally received some offensive firepower from Kevin O’ Brien ‘19, and Harry Rafferty ‘17 too, an encouraging sign. To win at Bates, they will need one of those two, or Salim Green ‘19 (finally got his name right) to shoot well from the perimeter, as Bates’ interior defense is often pretty much impenetrable.
Bates has been one of the surprises of the season thus far, sitting at 3-1 with a quality home win over Hamilton under their belt. Their success has obviously been chiefly due to the Delpeche twins, who combine for 27 PPG and 19 REB/G. Additionally, Malcolm leads the league in blocks at over 3 per game. The Delpeches are the keys to Bates’ offense and defense, but freshman transfer Jeff Spellman ‘20 has been pivotal in giving the Bobcats a perimeter threat off the bench. He had 30 points over the weekend. Bates should give Wesleyan a heavy dose of both Delpeche brothers, putting a tremendous defensive burden on Nathan Krill ‘19 and Joseph Kuo ‘17. Taking Bates’ lyric little bandbox of a home court into account, I see the towering twins leading Bates to another impressive home win.
Well if they lose this one, there’s officially a crisis in Amherst. The Purple and White have lost two in a row, both to teams that hadn’t won a game in league play entering their match-up. Amherst’s problems have been copiously and gleefully documented on this blog, but they boil down to a lack of dimensionality on offense. Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Jayde Dawson ‘18 have too much responsibility, allowing teams like Wesleyan to load up on them and dare other players to beat them. Colby probably doesn’t have quite enough perimeter depth to make use of this gameplan, but other teams have certainly taken notes on what Wesleyan and Conn College did to Amherst last weekend.
Colby may be the only team that played worse than Amherst last weekend. At 0-3 in the league, they are carving out a niche as the bottom team in a very strong league. Colby simply doesn’t have enough weapons to hang with the top teams in the league. Patrick Stewart ‘17 is an excellent stretch four, but like McCarthy and Dawson, he often carries an unreasonable burden for the Mules, yet with less of a supporting cast around him than the two Amherst guards. Amherst should use this game to get back on track, and ideally find a little more depth on offense.
This game is a matchup of stars. Jack Simonds ‘19 and Ed Ogundeko ‘17 would be my top two POY candidates at this point in the season, due to their importance to their respective teams. Bowdoin for the most part goes as far as Simonds can carry them, as was proven by his electric 32 point performance in their lone NESCAC win over Williams. This game will be an excellent test of Simonds’ scoring chops in league play, as Trinity boasts an elite defense anchored by, who else, Ed Ogundeko.
Ogundeko may carry an even heavier load for Trinity than Simonds does for Bowdoin. In addition to being the key to the offense, he leads the league (and by nature of the transitive property, the team as well) in rebounding, and may be the one of the most intimidating shot blockers in the league. Players are straight-up terrified of shooting layups against him, which is heavily responsible for Trinity being among the league leaders in most defensive catagories. Bowdoin, on the other hand, is the worst rebounding team in the league. This could well be another 20-20 game for Big Ed, and if that’s the case, I see Trinity taking the win at home.
The Trinity Bantams have had a lot of recent success against Middlebury. For what it’s worth the Bants outlasted Middlebury 90-85 a season ago. More relevant, of course, was the 97-86 beatdown that Trinity slapped on the Panthers two weekends ago. I know it was only an 11-point victory, but I do think the word “beatdown” is appropriate. Firstly, 97 points is a ridiculously high number. Secondly, Trinity lead by 18 with just over six minutes to go, and only a barrage of three-pointers from backup guard Bryan Jones ’17 kept it from being embarrassing for Middlebury. So that does not bode well for the Panthers.
Here’s why that doesn’t matter, though. Firstly, Adisa Majors ’18 has been very good all season long, but let’s be honest, just two weeks ago he was still somewhat of a novelty, with only four double digit scoring performances all season. Then he put up 18 against Amherst on 7-8 shooting and 15 at Trinity, and after another 18 in just 19 minutes against Wesleyan in the NESCAC Quarters, Majors has officially become someone you game plan against. Secondly, Matt Daley ’16 is healthy(-ish). Yes, Daley only played five minutes against Wesleyan, but that doesn’t mean he can’t put up a double-double on Saturday. The theme for Panthers Head Coach Jeff Brown all season has been to ride whatever is working on a given day, which is why all 12 active Panthers were in the game in the first half against Wesleyan. Bottom line, it just wasn’t working for Daley, but it very well might be this weekend, and the Majors-Daley combo has a lot of potential. Thirdly, and lastly, while all of the remaining teams have plenty of motivation in their search for a NESCAC crown, Middlebury has a little extra something on the line. Without a sweep this weekend, the Panthers will be playing golf come Monday (as the saying goes – believe me, no one’s playing golf in Middlebury, VT on Monday). The other three teams are locks to be playing NCAA games. Will that make a difference? I don’t know, but there’s no danger of Middlebury looking past this weekend.
Last time they played – Trinity 97 – Middlebury 86, Feb. 13 at Trinity
After seven minutes, Middlebury was up by three, 14-11. That was nice. Then Trinity took the lead. Then it was 10 at halftime. Then it was quickly 15. And Middlebury chipped back a little bit. But then it was 18 after a Langdon Neal ’17 jumper. Trinity shot the lights out, going 34-61 (55.7 percent) from the field, 8-18 (44.4 percent) from deep and 21-27 (77.8 percent) at the line.
“I just think we did well making shots. We were comfortable shooting the ball, we did a good job getting the ball inside to our big guys, and they did a good job taking the ball to the basket.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove
Middlebury just couldn’t get stops. Trinity didn’t let Matt St. Amour ’17 get many looks from three (just 0-2), something they have to replicate on Saturday. Jaquann Starks ’16 couldn’t miss (6-10 FG, 4-6 3PT). And Trinity shared the ball exceptionally well with 22 assists, up from their 16.5 average. The Bantams played a complete game, and Middlebury just could not hang.
Middlebury X-factor: F Zach Baines ’19
You think you’ve arrived, kid? Think again. Shay Ajayi ’16 and Ed Ogundeko ’16 probably form the best frontcourt combo in the NESCAC. “They’re two of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached, and they keep coming every day to get better,” said Trinity coach James Cosgrove. For Middlebury, their frontcourt is constantly in flux. Daley, Connor Huff ’16, Majors, Nick Tarantino ’18, Eric McCord ’19 and Baines have all started there. One thing that I feel fairly confident in, though, is that Baines will get a lot of minutes and they will be at the four. Which means – have you been following along? – he will have to defend Ajayi. In case you forgot, Ajayi is a senior, averaging 14.1 ppg, with NCAA Elite Eight experience. That is a tall order for Baines. He gives up an inch or two to Ajayi, but makes up for that with his length. I believe that he’s the only big man Middlebury has that can guard Ajayi at the perimeter, but he lacks the size (read: weight) to stop Ajayi when he gets around the rim. He will need help from Majors, Huff and Daley, but Baines is going to be a key in slowing down Ajayi and putting a hand in his face.
Trinity X-factor: PG Andrew Hurd ’16
Hurd leads the NESCAC with a 3.5 A/TO ratio, which is sixth in all of Division-III as of Thursday. On the flip side, Middlebury is the best in the NESCAC at forcing turnovers with 15.1 takeaways per game. Last time they played, Hurd has six assists and no turnovers. So that’s it, just do what you do, Drew. These backcourts are so evenly matched – St. Amour, Jake Brown ’17 and Jack Daly ’18 vs. Hurd, Starks and Rick Naylor ’16. You basically have a classic “true” point guard, a high volume shooter and defender/occasional scorer on both sides of the balance sheet. That’s why a pristine game from Hurd could be the difference, elevating Trinity’s backcourt and supporting a frontcourt that already has the advantage.
1. Can you shut down Matt St. Amour twice in one season?
My instincts say “no”, but I’ve been wrong once or twice before. St. Amour gets a lot of his threes in transition, not from traditional set plays. The Panthers, as we know, like to run, and sometimes St. Amour gets lost in transition. Now, if you shoot the ball like Trinity did last time, there aren’t many opportunities to run for the other team. So, in reality, offense, and offensive rebounding, is the best defense for the Bantams in this game. Put the ball in the hoop, stop transition looks, and St. Amour will be relegated to a free throw shooter like he was in the last meeting between these two teams.
2. How does Trinity Coach James Cosgrove exploit the frontcourt advantage?
The Bantams will work the ball through Ogundeko often, but backing him up against Matt Daley (6’8″) or Majors (210 pounds) isn’t likely to be the best strategy. I think the obvious answer is to pull out the four man with Ajayi, which isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. Whenever the Panthers have two true bigs in the game – not Baines, who’s a stretch four – Trinity has to take advantage. Therefore, I don’t think Middlebury will play with two bigs very often, but the combos of Daley-Majors, Majors-Huff and some McCord sprinkled in will definitely occur.
3. Will any of the Middlebury bench players get hot in the first half?
Last meeting, it was Jones in the second half who got hot, but as mentioned, every one gets a shot in the first half on this Panthers team. Maybe it will be Jones (who’s dealing with sickness this week), maybe it will be Hilal Dahleh ’19 and his sweet lefty stroke, maybe Liam Naughton ’17 could drain a couple of quick threes, but someone is going to need to sneak a few buckets while the Bantams aren’t looking. Middlebury has had one consistent scorer all year, and even though we think that Majors can be counted on, that still only leaves two guys who can put the ball in the hoop more than twice a game. That makes defensive assignments pretty easy. Someone else needs to take some pressure off the Middlebury duo of St. Amour and Majors. And don’t let Trinity get up at half. With that defense (38.2 field goal percentage against; second in Division-III), good luck coming back. The only teams to trail Trinity at half and come back to win were the somewhat anomalous Eastern Connecticut (down by six), No. 16 Susquehanna (down by one) and No. 21 Plattsburgh St. (down by two) back in December and early January. So basically unless you’re a ranked team down by one or two points or from Eastern Connecticut you aren’t coming back on this team.
What to Expect
Expect Trinity to go back to Ajayi as much as possible. Jack Daly and Jake Brown should keep Starks in check for the most part, but Ajayi is a match up nightmare.
“I think for us, defensively, the matchup with Ajayi is really a challenging one,” Panthers coach Jeff Brown said. “In the past he played quite a bit of perimeter. The last couple of seasons he played a lot of the three-spot. So he’s one of those inside-outside forwards who’s extremely athletic, and with some of our post players it’s a tough cover.”
Coach Brown wants to switch more on the perimeter, something that Colby did well in the first half of last week’s Quarterfinal when they held Trinity to 19 points, and throw some different looks at the Bantams. I think we see a good deal of 3-2 zone to limit Trinity’s looks from three. I’ve yet to mention Eric Gendron ’18, but his 44.1 three point percentage ranks fifth in the NESCAC. You can’t let him get hot, either. “[Gendron’s one that really kind of concerns me off of the bench,” Coach Brown said. Middlebury needs to force stops to create transition buckets.
On the other end, if the Panthers can’t get going in transition, they’re in for a long afternoon. Trinity is obviously very tough and physical in the half court defensively, and I don’t think Middlebury can play that way for 40 minutes. Majors has the size to do it, but even that is outweighed (literally and figuratively) by the presence of Ogundeko. Look for St. Amour to try to get going early and give Middlebury a lead with a couple of threes. Baseline screens and hand offs for Number 11 will be a common sight.
“He’s dynamite shooting the ball.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove on Middlebury guard Matt St. Amour
As far as the NESCAC goes, Middlebury ranks first in offensive turnovers (i.e. fewest turnovers) and Trinity ties for fourth. On the flip side, Middlebury has forced the most turnovers per game (15.1) and Trinity has forced the fourth most turnovers per game. Something has to give. In a game of this intensity, with these stakes, I think the defense wins out. Not that it will be sloppy – these point guards are too good for that – but I envision a lot of fast-paced basketball which tends to result in some silly turnovers. Therefore, ball control is key. Don’t make mistakes with the ball. For Trinity, the key is to beat up on the Middlebury bigs. For Middlebury, the key is similar. Use Trinity’s aggressiveness against them. Middlebury’s not a very good free throw shooting team, but St. Amour (who takes 5.4 free throws per game, third in the NESCAC) is great from the stripe (81.5 percent), and forcing the Trinity forwards into foul trouble will change the game.
Additionally, Trinity has home court working heavily in their favor. They should have some boisterous crowds this weekend, unlike last when most of the students were gone because there was no class on Monday and Tuesday of that week. The Bantams have been tough to topple at home, going 11-1, that one loss coming against Amherst, and Trinity coach James Cosgrove is aware of the benefit of playing at home.
“It’s always nice to be playing at home. I think we feel real comfortable here. We’ve done some nice things here over the last couple of years.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove
Furthermore, the first time the Panthers step onto the court in Hartford will be an hour or so before game time. As a team, they chose not to take advantage of an early morning shoot around time slot. Whether that decision will pay off or not remains to be seen. Of course, Middlebury was on the Oostings hardwood two weeks ago, but they might want to forget about that.
In case you missed it over the last two-plus years, I’m a big Middlebury fan, and my co-editor, Adam Lamont, is a big Bowdoin guy. We’re both students, and we’re not afraid to let you know when we have a rooting interest. Despite all that, I can’t pick the Panthers in this game. Forgive me, guys, but you made me look foolish two weeks ago when I gave you the nod to win at least one against Amherst and/or Trinity. I won’t be fooled again. I hope I’m wrong, but Trinity just looks too good. They’re 12 for their last 14. One of those was against Amherst (the other was against 11-14 Merchant Marine – one of those mysteries where you chalk it up to being a full moon, Friday the 13th and everyone on the team taking part in a mirror-smashing party while walking under a step ladder … okay it wasn’t actually Friday the 13th). Point being, I just think Trinity will win. Prove me wrong, boys. I want to keep watching Middlebury basketball for a few more weeks.